MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now, before the news of the Mueller report, President Trump said earlier today that the ISIS territorial caliphate had been eliminated in Syria. For weeks now, fighting has focused on the Syrian town of Baguz, which is believed to be the final bit of Syrian territory under ISIS control.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This is not the first time the White House has claimed victory. And to get more information on all of this, we're joined now by NPR correspondent Ruth Sherlock in Beirut...
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.
CHANG: ...And NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in Washington.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Alisa.
CHANG: Tom, let's start with you. What exactly did the White House say today?
BOWMAN: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Air Force One traveling with the president to Florida that the territorial ISIS caliphate has been 100 percent eliminated in Syria. This is the third time the White House has said it. Back in December, President Trump said ISIS has been defeated. Again last month, he said ISIS is 100 percent defeated.
And Sarah Sanders directed reporters to the Pentagon for additional information. We've not received any word yet from the Pentagon. And one official I spoke with at the Pentagon said they were taken by surprise, that they still think fighting is ongoing. They think once again, it's a premature announcement.
And finally, there's a CNN reporter outside of Baguz. He says he's actually hearing fighting, seeing fighting. And there are illumination rounds coming down. They're used to give troops a sense of where the enemy locations are.
CHANG: So clearly not having eliminated ISIS here. Turning to you, Ruth, you've been talking to U.S.-backed forces literally on the ground in Syria. They're called the Syrian Democratic Forces. What are you hearing from them about what the fighting has been like around Baguz?
SHERLOCK: Well, they also say that it's ongoing. We spoke with Adnan Afrin, a commander who's right there, right on the front line. And he says we have no idea why the U.S. announced this prematurely. On the ground, there's still fighting. And we know that the U.S. coalition knows this because they're still participating in air strikes. So he's very taken aback and says the fight remains ongoing.
CHANG: Presumably, at some point, this battle around Baguz will come to an end. So if it does, Tom, how significant would that be?
BOWMAN: Well, it is significant that the caliphate comes to an end. But now, the hard part begins. We're told that hundreds of U.S. soldiers will remain in Syria to go after the remnants of ISIS. There are thousands and thousands of fighters that have gone to ground or seeped back into the villages and cities ready to fight again.
Now, the U.S. will continue a counterterror effort there. They'll also train local forces to patrol in these cities and villages. And they'll also be there to help in the stabilization of these areas. You have to bring back water and sewer and electricity, just basic services. So this isn't over by any means. We're talking many months or even well over a year.
CHANG: Ruth, what will the defeat of the ISIS caliphate mean for Syria ultimately?
SHERLOCK: You know, this has come at a huge cost for Syrians. Entire swathes of northeastern Syria have been destroyed in the fight against ISIS. You had the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was once home to some 220,000 people, that's utterly flattened. People are desperate. They have nothing.
And so while ISIS's has territorial control may have ended, the ideology still remains. And it's exactly in these type of desperate and chaotic places that it might have a chance to come back and thrive once again.
CHANG: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut and NPR's Tom Bowman in Washington. Thank you both very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.